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Grief and the Cyclical Nature of Time

Time moves in a spiral.

We modern humans think we know how time moves; time moves in a straight line headed in one direction. We have a very clear idea about the nature of time; time passes, one moment affecting the next. We have created a calendar with specific dates, one date to mark each different day. We can never relive a day; once lived, it is gone forever. Time moves in a straight line headed in one direction.

Many ancient peoples had a very different idea of time. Time was not straight, time was round. We dance around the wheel of the year, coming back around to the same points again and again. For a long time, I tried to understand this new, very old paradigm of time. Did they really believe they were reliving the same days over and over again?

My relationship with time has shifted and transformed throughout my life but nothing has affected my perception of time more than enduring great loss and experiencing deep grief. I have a very different relationship with time now. The trauma of great loss changes who you are. There is now a “before” and an “after”- delineated by a very specific moment in time. Everything in life is now either “before” or “after” that one moment. Yet everything is touched by the loss, including memories of “before” and the experience of living in the “after”. The progression of time seems very different than it did- time seems to move much more slowly, and at the same time it seems to move too fast. I have had the feeling that I am removed from the progression of time and at the same time feel like I’m aging faster than ever. Each person’s relationship with time is different; it is relative and very personal.

Through my grief, I have found that my relationship with cyclical time has grown deeper than ever. As I dance on the wheel of the year, moving through each season, I have felt the return of specific times again and again. Calendar dates can seem so arbitrary. Dates are a way that humans have numbered our days- seemingly meaningless- and yet when a meaningful date approaches, I feel it before I am consciously aware of the approach. I feel it in my body before I know it in my head. Anniversaries- of a death, of a birth, of a memorable occasion- are written on that day, again and again. I’ll feel sadness overcome me and not know why until I realize the time of the year, until I realize that I have returned around the spiral of time.

I have always been deeply aware of cycles- the cycles within me and the cycles around me- and yet I did not truly grasp the cyclical nature of time until I felt deep loss and true grief. Grief helps us to really sink into cyclical time. So often I think, “it’s been so long! How can I still feel so intensely?” There are times when I feel like I’m right back where I was so long ago. Sometimes, the number of years that have passed since “before” seems irrelevant. My grief ebbs and flows as we move through the seasons. Often, my state of being will shift and it takes some time for me to connect it with the time of the year that is approaching. Time moves in a spiral. I’m back at that time again, but just a little removed. I’ve returned to the same point, but further out on the spiral.

Moving with the spiral of time helps me to be more present in my life and the lives of others. When we come back around the wheel of the year to a specific time, we are connected with this time of year in all the years past, and in some ways we’re reliving the past. Knowing this helps me to give myself empathy and have more empathy for others. Recognizing where (and when) I am and what I am really experiencing helps me to see the journey of my life more clearly. Living with deep grief can be really painful. It helps me to know and to feel the cyclical nature of time so I can know and feel my real experience, so I can recognize why I feel the way I do and recognize where part of me is. By moving with the spiraling of time, I can more fully inhabit my experience of life. Time moves in a spiral, and I move with it.

Photo: Comfrey by Rachel Fee

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